I can’t believe we’re already coming down the homestretch of the Six Weeks of Halloween horror movie marathon, but here we are… Tonight, we play along with the Final Girl Film Club and their selection of 2012’s The Last Will and Testament of Rosalind Leigh.
“If you say in the first chapter that there is a rifle hanging on the wall, in the second or third chapter it absolutely must go off. If it’s not going to be fired, it shouldn’t be hanging there.” – Anton Chekhov
This concept is known as Chekhov’s Gun. These days, people often refer to it in the context of narrative twist endings, where some object or character, innocuously introduced early on in the story, turns out to be a key to the narrative. This being the internet, calling something a Chekhov’s Gun is usually meant as a pejorative because, like, dude, I totally noticed it for what it was and wasn’t surprised by the twist ending at all. But Chekhov’s point wasn’t necessarily to conceal the importance of the gun, just that you shouldn’t be spending time on something if it’s not essential to the story. I’m betting that Chekhov would hate The Last Will and Testament of Rosalind Leigh.
The plot here is that this guy Leon inherits his estranged mother’s creepy old house, spends the night, and then leaves. Spoilers, I guess. The titular Will and Testament is mostly played in voiceover and not something that Leon directly interacts with or hears, but it seems that Rosalind Leigh liked her communications to be oblique and weird. Leon’s parents were apparently part of a religious cult that worshiped Angels, and after the father died mysteriously when Leon was just a wee lad, Leon stopped believing and eventually left the house, never looking back (hence the estrangement). Until now! Will Rosalind Leigh save Leon’s soul with her elaborate figurine collection?
More importantly, do we really care? Leon’s kinda a melancholy turd. Aaron Poole plays Leon well enough, and he looks like a sorta cross between Aaron Paul (Breaking Bad) and Rob McElhenney (It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia), which I found amusing. And this movie is an actor’s dream. It’s all in one house, and you don’t really see anyone else (there are some phone calls, off screen voices, audio cassettes, etc…), so he has to carry the movie on his shoulders. He’s given plenty to work with, but it’s all so vague that the character never really worked for me.
On the bright side, the film is absolutely gorgeous, and even when nothing is happening, the camera is always moving. I was never bored watching the movie, and I love the atmosphere this movie evokes. Amazing production design, and the cinematography is first rate. There’s a great long take towards the beginning that takes you on a sort of short tour of the house, which is quite creepily appointed with all sorts of baroque figurines and humanoid figures, amongst all sorts of other melancholy stuff. The camera lingers over everything, even as it is constantly roaming through the household. It’s as if the filmmakers are daring you to pick out the Chekhov’s guns. Will all these figurines come to life? Will the organ pipes start playing a tune?
And to be sure, many Chekhov’s Guns go off as you might expect. There’s some knitted sayings on the wall, like this ominous one: “If you drop a knife on the floor a man will knock on the door, a spoon and a woman will knock, if a fork it will be neither.” Naturally, whilst eating dinner, Leon drops his fork, which is followed by an immediate knock on the door. Spooky! We never see the person at the door, but we hear him and they have a nice conversation. Now, this was well executed, but not exactly earth shattering. Other Chekhov Guns are not nearly as successful. Another saying on the wall indicates that if the faucet is dripping, it will rain, and ZOMG, it does! A locked door with a missing key? I wonder what’s behind it? We do get to find out, but it turns out to be nothing particularly important. There’s a book called Communicating With the Dead, and Leon has a semi-relevant dream. Wow.
There’s some hokum about a wolf-like creature inhabiting the backyard and the house, and there’s a great big Angel statue that has an unsettling backstory, but nothing really comes of any of this. There’s a ton of stuff that is alluded to or foreshadowed, but those guns never go off. And, to be fair, Chekhov was a short story writer. A masterful one, but given that context, you can see why he advises keeping only essential elements in the story. So red herrings can be fine if employed in the service of a great story, and it can be commendable not to hit up the obvious horror movie tropes where the statues and suits of armor come alive and attack our hero. There’s a theme here about losing the faith, regret, and loneliness, and maybe some unreliable narration spiked with mommy issues for spice, but it never quite congeals into something that really connected with me. I will admit that I was a little surprised at the conclusion, not wholly in a bad way, but this movie at least sticks to its guns.
I can see why this movie has a following. It’s impeccably made and again, gorgeous. While I’m sure it’s a low budget film, in never feels that way, and it never goes for cheap thrills, which I can totally respect. Something this well made and mature also has to appeal to genre hounds who get sick of all the cheap, crappy horror out there. It is very ambitious and thoughtful and one could probably spend a lot of time parsing out what everything means… but on the other hand, why would you want to do that? I feel like this is a movie that could easily be cut in half (at least) and still work just as well (if not better), which is odd considering the running time is a relatively svelt 80 minutes. So it’s not a total waste of time and I appreciate slow burn movies as much as the next guy, but this did not work for me. I guess I’m coming down on Chekhov’s side here. If it’s not essential, don’t put it on screen. Alas, there’s a lot of unessential stuff in this movie.